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13 Oct 2008 : Column 580

Afghanistan still seems, if certain high-profile cases are correctly reported, to have a legal system that condemns apostasy as a criminal act and will provide for the death penalty if someone is convicted of apostasy. In Iraq, there are persistent reports from the Nineveh plain—I appreciate that that is not the area where British troops have served—that there is little effective security, and that illegal annexation of land is taking place. What seems certain is that thousands of families of Christian belief have been displaced from their ancestral homes in that part of Iraq.

Daniel Kawczynski: Briefly, on the point my hon. Friend made on Zimbabwe, will he join me in congratulating the President of Botswana and the late President of Zambia, who showed courage and integrity in their public condemnation of Mugabe?

Mr. Lidington: I am happy to do so.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend touched on the subject of apostasy. Does he share my concern that, never mind what is going on over there, people here in this country who choose, or choose to turn away from, particular faiths are being threatened with death? Will he put on record our Front Benchers’ view on such a scenario in this country?

Mr. Lidington: Any threats of that nature would seem, prima facie, to be a breach of criminal law in England, and I would like to see robust action taken against the perpetrators of any such threats. We are rightly proud of our tradition of religious toleration in this country. It took us many years of struggle, debate and difficulty to reach it, and it is a prize on to which we need to hold fast.

It is not enough to speak about abuses of human rights in other countries. As has already been mentioned, if we are to be taken seriously in the world, we must be ready to acknowledge when we—or one of our allies—gets things wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that allegations of prisoner abuse or of rendition leading to torture, however isolated, have done a great deal of damage to the moral authority of the western world. Our words will carry weight only if they are supported by efforts to adhere to the high standards that we preach.

I welcome the thorough analysis of the claims about rendition that was conducted earlier this year by the Government and by the United States Department of State. I was pleased that firm assurances have now been given that rendition involving this country will not be permitted unless it is undertaken strictly in compliance with our country’s laws. However, there is a loose end to the rendition question that needs to be tied up, and I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with this point in her response to the debate.

In December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the international covenant for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, and Britain was active in promoting that covenant. However, we have not yet signed it. In a written answer on 14 November 2007, Lord Malloch-Brown acknowledged that there had been a delay. In a debate on 17 July this year, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether the continuing delay was due to genuine worries about security, or
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simply to internal delays in the Foreign Office. The right hon. Gentleman said that he would write to me

Three months on, I am still waiting for that promised response. I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary has had other matters on his mind during the summer recess. However, perhaps he now finds himself with more time on his hands than he had anticipated a few weeks ago. A response is overdue on this significant question in the context of our concern over rendition and detention, and I hope that the Government will not delay further in giving Parliament a proper response.

In pursuing our policy objectives, we also need to support effective treaties and institutions to defend and enlarge human rights. I am happy to reiterate my party’s support for the negotiations to secure an arms trade treaty and for the United Nations programme of action on the small arms trade. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred earlier to the responsibility to protect. We want to see the United Nations work, but, as he said, Darfur surely shows that at the moment neither the United Nations peacekeeping arrangements nor those that exist at regional level through the African Union are anything like adequate or effective.

We would also like to see the UN Human Rights Council work effectively, but I agreed with the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) when he said that its performance had been disappointing so far. If we look at the table on pages 54 and 55 of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights, we see listed the voting on key resolutions—those that the FCO decided were the most important. Of those 10 resolutions debated by the UN Human Rights Council, the UK voted against seven and abstained on the other three. One has to ask what is going wrong with that institution when our Government find themselves unable to support any of the 10 most important resolutions.

Clearly, a number of things are going wrong with that UN body. It is surely not right that a country can be elected to the Human Rights Council without even signing up to basic international treaties such as the international covenant on civil and political rights. Surely the process of universal periodic review—the questioning and testing of each country’s human rights record—needs to take place in such a way that the countries serving on the Human Rights Council have their records examined first. One should surely expect at the very minimum that the examinations of the records of members of the HRC would have been concluded before the half way mark of the term of sitting. Something is clearly going wrong when, in the universal periodic review sessions earlier this year, we find that Algeria had a great deal of critical comment to make about the Czech Republic and, indeed, the United Kingdom—as I made clear earlier, however, I am not afraid of our being self-critical—but had little to say about its own record. Nor, sadly, did many countries from outside the developed west challenge nations such as Algeria and Tunisia about their human rights records when their turn for examination came.

Next year, the Human Rights Council faces a very big test with the planned conference in Geneva, which follows up the world conference against racism held in Durban in 2001. Let us be honest about it: Durban was
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a travesty, with Israel singled out for attack and the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, walking out in protest. Let me make this clear: I have criticised Israel in the past and I will continue to do so over its settlement policy, the route of the security barrier and its treatment of Palestinians, but the notion that Israel—and Israel above all—should be singled out is to deny the reality of what is happening on human rights in the world today.

It is the reputation of the United Nations, and in particular the Human Rights Council, that will be at stake in Geneva next year, and I have to say that the omens are not good. The chairman of the conference planning committee is from Libya, the vice-chairman is from Iran and the rapporteur is from Cuba. Will the ministerial team tell us during this debate whether Her Majesty’s Government plan to send Ministers to attend the conference in Geneva or have they already, like Canada, written it off as a bad job? Will the Government fund non-governmental organisations to attend the conference? I think that we deserve some straight answers on those points.

People who have glimpsed freedom—whether it be through books, television, the internet or travel—will never be content until they have secured it for themselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt said 60 years ago:

The ideas embodied in the universal declaration of human rights were then and remain now a beacon of hope and optimism to those who endure tyranny and oppression. All of us here, from whichever party or political tradition we come, have a duty to cherish and uphold those ideas today.

5.49 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I am delighted with the subject of the debate. There are many hon. Members here who directly participate in the promotion of democracy throughout the world as Members of Parliament. We are in a Chamber—not this one, exactly—that fought hard and resisted for a long time the process of democracy, denying ordinary working people and women the right to vote. The franchise was pathetically small, but because of external pressures—the Birmingham Political Union of 1832, the Chartists and the suffragettes—as well as other pressures from within our political system and, in many ways, from within our legislature, we evolved, painfully slowly, into a formidable democracy.

Complacency then set in, and there was a rude awakening a few years ago when we realised that not everybody who could vote was imbued with the tradition, which had been laid down for over a century, of one person, one vote. Instead, there was one person, multiple voting. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) knows a great deal about that, as do others from Birmingham.

I am delighted that the action taken by the Government, the Electoral Commission and the wonderful judge of great literary competence who produced the report on Birmingham has helped to recreate the culture of elections whereby international standards, as well as British standards, are adhered to.

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John Hemming: I am pretty certain that the right hon. Gentleman and I do not disagree on this. I would like to highlight the fact that the difference was that Birmingham took action to deal with election fraud, not that it happened only in Birmingham.

Mr. George: The hon. Gentleman was accused of being a very bad witness, but he was right in that he identified the substantial fraud in Birmingham. It scarred a number of political parties, not least my own, but I have traced the evolution of democracy in detail and seen how election petitions originated. In the 19th century, Members of Parliament judged people who had complained about elections, which was almost like Mao Tse Tung’s determining the nature of democracy. Members of Parliament were ill equipped to comment on other people’s frauds because they were themselves the beneficiaries of fraud. It was only when Parliament and the Government transferred to the senior judiciary the function of addressing election petitions against fraud that the problem was largely solved.

Mrs. Moon: I take my right hon. Friend’s point about the evolution of democracy—we cannot just click our fingers for it to emerge in a certain country—but does he agree that we are attempting to make big changes through the Global Opportunities Fund, in particular in China, where we are working at different levels with the legislature, the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organisations and academics so that democracy and human rights are gradually inculcated into the systems and form part of their thinking? It should not be denied that we are helping to move the process forward.

Mr. George: That will save me five minutes of my speech. I emphasised our own backyard to point out—I hope quite forcefully—that before we start to lecture others on democracy and free and fair elections, we should put our house in order. I believe that we are largely doing that as a result of the scandals in a number of cities and towns in this country.

There are many definitions of “democracy”, although I shall not go into them. I am an avid reader of The Economist and the output of the Economist Intelligence Unit. It has taken a good approach to what constitutes a democracy, using a scoring system that puts the UK—I do not think this is right—23rd out of about 30 democracies, although I am consoled by the fact that the French are 24th. There are also other ways by which one can evaluate whether a country meets democratic standards.

My point is that not more than a fifth or a sixth of countries can be designated “democratic”. Many purport to be democratic and many have not the slightest interest in becoming democratic, but some are struggling to do so. We took a long time to achieve democracy—comparatively speaking, we were a wealthy nation in the 19th century—so one has to have a degree of tolerance towards other countries that want to be more democratic, but are in the early part of the process.

Some people mocked Islamic countries in this regard, but in fairness I must point out that a number of countries are trying to be more democratic, such as Albania, which does not have much of a record of democracy. We have done a great deal in the international
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community in relation to Kosovo and Bosnia. I am a great supporter of Turkey, whose Islamic Government are far better at achieving and maintaining democracy than their ostensibly secular predecessors. They are certainly far less corrupt.

Other examples are Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, which are trying hard. Algeria is fighting a war against terrorism and is also trying hard. I have visited Kuwait and other Gulf states, and I head a small non-governmental organisation that is helping capacity-build in the second Chamber of the Omani Parliament. I merely make the point that it is difficult for an Islamic country quickly to move towards western-style democracy, even if it is not from a standing start. Perhaps such countries will not adopt western-style democracy, but I am confident that a number of countries are progressing in the right direction at a pace they can cope with.

We are progressing and the UK’s record in promoting democracy is good, but it amuses me to look at the annual report produced by the Department for International Development, whose record in promoting democracy is excellent. In the index to the report, the only reference to democracy, as with the Foreign Office annual report, is to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This country is trying hard and succeeding well in promoting democracy, not forcing it down people’s throats or saying, “Look, we can tell you how to do it.” There is an exchange of experience. Therefore, I hope that future annual reports at least pay lip service to the fact that both those great institutions of our state are promoting democracy. Why do they appear embarrassed to admit that we are promoting democracy? Why are they hiding behind terms such as “human rights”, which the Government are promoting and appears in the reports, and “good governance”? Those are weasel words, albeit important words, and I feel embarrassed that those institutions are not prepared to say them.

On democracy promotion, I do not want to give a checklist. I am not one of the greatest admirers of the United Nations, and many of the problems that we heard about earlier are the result of countries with little democratic tradition such as China and Russia—previously the Soviet Union—doing all they can to prop up Governments as illicit and authoritarian as their own.

Security Council decisions can easily be vetoed, so it is not at all surprising that democracy is hardly as high on the agenda as it ought to be. However, it is quite high. The record on what is being done by the political and electoral assistance divisions, and by other parts of the UN, is good. What was virtually the founding document of the UN extolled the virtues of free elections as an essential element of any society in the world. The UN’s record is far from bad; it is good and deserves more praise. I am saying that not because I am going there in January, but because the record is not as bad as some people purport it to be.

John Bercow: Given that both the Government of Burma and the Government of Sudan continue to be guilty of the most egregious human rights abuses, that neither of those regimes is improving, and that both are propped up by what I would call the amorality of the Chinese, how does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Chinese can be persuaded to behave in a more responsible and moral fashion, in their own interest?

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Mr. George: One would hope that as a result of the inexorable process of democratisation, the more the population are educated and the more—dare I say it?—bourgeois they become, the more they will not be prepared to acquiesce to a decision-making process emanating from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. One would hope, therefore, that the Chinese would reach a point that we and most, or at least many, other countries have reached. Russia has not reached that point, I am afraid, because its progress in the rather anarchic democracy of Yeltsin has been deleted. We may not quite be returning to the Soviet era, but we are certainly heading towards an era in which sovereign democracy is as plausible a concept of democracy as were the people’s democracies in eastern and central Europe from the 1940s onwards.

I should like to say that the United Nations is doing a good job. Other international organisations are certainly doing a good job—including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, although the Russians can veto any decision made in the OSCE. I am not the foremost devotee of the European Union system, but I have been back and forth quite frequently exploring the EU’s role in promoting democracy, and it is formidable. We should note how well it functions in observing elections. It is now probably almost as good as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which I consider to be the jewel in the OSCE’s crown and to represent the gold standard for election observation.

Malcolm Bruce: The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point, and he is right to mention those organisations, but, given the problem that we have with Russia, does he think it entirely helpful to the credibility of this country—and, indeed, to the Council of Europe—for an alliance of British Conservatives and Russian supporters or Putinites to operate as a single political unit in the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly?

Mr. George: That is another three minutes of my speech gone, but I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said, although I believe that those to whom he refers have at long last extricated themselves from the process. It should be pointed out that while it is not possible to pick and choose members in the OSCE, it is possible to do so in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. It can appoint and it can throw out—and if a country’s human rights record is as bad as that of Russia, and getting worse, I feel that that country should be a suitable case for rustication.

Tony Baldry: Without descending to party politics, which could be discussed on another occasion, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is sensible that the Council of Europe has resolved to conduct a full investigation of the circumstances involving the recent war between Russia and Georgia before jumping to a conclusion, and has indicated in pretty clear terms that consequences will follow if a conclusion is reached that is adverse to either or both parties?

Mr. George: I am delighted. I hope that a Russian rapporteur is not involved. If I had the time, which I do not, I could list all Russia’s failures—

John Bercow: Go on!

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